Saturday, 28 January 2012

A collapse to 72: the new 51 all out

There's a sense of deja-vu eclipsing the England cricket contingent at the minute.

A reasonable run-chase of 145. England were always going to make it look difficult; it's what they do. But a complete collapse to 72 all out is embarrassing, unacceptable, pathetic... whatever adjective you want to use, it was not the outcome that England were expecting. It was the same old story with England. A bit of turn, some clever deliveries, an inability to get onto the front foot and attack, instead choosing to prod and grope at the odd delivery meant that the run chase never got off to the start it deserved.

England are well known for being cautious, and going into this run chase swinging the bat about loosely would not have done them any favours. But hanging on the back foot, and playing overly defensively, does not project a confident imagery. Pakistan knew this, and they drew on it. There were some absolute beauties; Rehman's delivery to Broad that flew into the off-stump was absolutely gorgeous, but for the most, it was just standard off-spin on a pitch that was turning. More wickets fell to LBW's than to fielding dismissals. Time and time again, England just looked clueless against spin. Hanging back on the crease meant the batsmen were wide open to LBW's, and the debate will rage about what needs to be done. As blasé as it sounds, all England needed to do was hit the ball, and protect their wicket; yet batsman after batsman came and went after trying to defend and missing the ball.

It seems almost sure that Eoin Morgan will have to go. Arguably England's best player of spin in the one day format, he has appeared unable to deal with the pressure this series has brought. He too fell victim to England's back-foot calamities, and the ball crept through to rearrange his leg stump. But Morgan is not the sole problem in this batting line-up. In four innings, Ian Bell has looked stumped against decent spin bowling. A struggle to read a doosra is forgivable; being unable to deal with spin on the whole is not. As Michael Vaughan pointed out on TMS, Bell struggled against Warne, Murali and now against Ajmal and Rehman. Pietersen's well-documented struggles against left-arm spin continued. Strauss hit a few lovely shots, including a gorgeous cut through the covers, but was too negative, or defensive, in his stroke play, and this attitude ended his stay at the crease.

The sad thing is, England's dismal batting partially negates a stunning Pakistan team performance. Misbah's captaincy has been a joy to watch; he knows his bowlers well, he knows how to set a field to each of them and Pakistan were positive where England were unsure. It was a fantastic lesson in spin bowling. Ajmal took a backseat as Rehman's left arm spin bamboozled England. The aforementioned Broad wicket was divine, as was his dismissal of Morgan. And watching Pakistan at the end, it was impossible to not feel some sense of affection towards them. This is a side that has transformed itself over the past year. With a new captain, a crop of young players and a huge dedication to their sport, they've moved on from the spot-fixing allegations and have just won a series against the number one ranked team in the world. It's an immensely proud time for Pakistani cricket.

Equally distressing is that the batting collapse will take precedence over what was a very strong bowling performance. Monty Panesar, back in an England shirt after two years, was as watchable as he was in 2007. Monty's unbounded enthusiasm and dedication paid off in this match; he claimed two vital top-order wickets and then cleaned up the tail without too much fuss, his delivery to dismiss Younis Khan being a particular highlight. It was disappointing to see such an emphatic performance from Panesar essentially go to waste as the batsman crumbled in their attempts to reach 145. Swann was also tidy, working well with Panesar, and coupled with the Pakistan bowling performance, the spinners were a joy to watch in both innings. Broad is also beginning to live up to his all-rounder label, with a bowling performance that proved his success against India was not just a product of swinging English conditions, before a handy 58 in the first innings pulled England out of yet another hole.

Ultimately, England's batting is not up to scratch. People can blame Trott's illness and subsequent disruption to the batting order; they can blame Ajmal's doosra and a pitch that was conducive to spin. Whatever reasons people want to grab at, the simple fact remains that England's batting just wasn't good enough. It was a gripping Test from start to finish - far more entertaining than the recent one-sided battles everyone has become accustomed to - but to watch England's batting crumble for the second time in this series was completely disheartening. England will be mocked, and critiqued, but it'll be a measure of how great this side is to see how they bounce back in the final game on Friday.

Still. We'll always have Melbourne.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

England and the subcontinent: a one-sided relationship

It's become far too easy to say "England struggle in the subcontinent". Yes, they do; but why do they struggle?

The bowling of the opposition is often held up as the main culprit, in particular dealing with spin bowlers. Yet this match hasn't seen a huge amount of turn from the Pakistan bowlers. Ajmal's doosra and teesra haven't been given that much of an outing, because England have been too preoccupied with prodding and poking at the regular offspin. The sweep shot is undoubtedly useful, particularly when dealing with spin, but a poorly executed sweep is one of the ugliest shots to see. Mistiming it completely means the ball comes thudding into the pad or creeping through the defence into the stumps; mis-hitting more often than not results in a chip to the nearest fielder. A sweep should be used logically, not as an act of desperation to get off the strike or strike a precious boundary.

Increasingly, England are looking less and less sure against spin. Strauss' failed pull in the first innings of the match showcased this perfectly. He read the delivery wrong, decided to use the hook shot and instead had his stumps rearranged as the ball crept through. Yet increasingly, the wickets fell not because of spin or uneven bounce (the wicket was a batsman's paradise for all three days) but because of a bizarre array of stroke play from England. Pietersen, coming in at four when England were already wobbling on 25/2, hooked a short delivery from Gul straight to deep square leg; why? The delivery hurried him, admittedly, but England have faced far quicker in the past, and have used a good defensive technique to avoid mimicking exactly what Pietersen did.

Both innings required sense and patience from the batsmen, but the top six, with a few exceptions, didn't seem to be able to run these two qualities in tandem. Bell is regarded as one of England's best players of spin, yet in both innings he completely misread Ajmal's doosra, resulting in two stone-dead LBW decisions. England often talk about playing positively, and yes, playing positively is usually the way to go; but when you're staring down the barrel of a gun, as the top order were in both innings, someone needs to take their time and dig themselves, and England, back into the game.

Prior was the highlight of the batting line-up. Coming in when England were 46/5, Prior kept his head. His eighth wicket partnership with Swann was England's highest partnership of the game. The two played well together - Swann punching the majority of deliveries to the boundary rope, whilst Prior remained stoic at the other end. But the fact that an eighth wicket partnership put on not only the highest partnership of the game, but pulled England out of an embarrassing position, speaks volumes about the input of the top six.

Maybe it's a change of mentality that's required when England play in the subcontinent. Not just when it comes to playing spin - which has been mentioned in relation to England for the past six years, if not longer - but an almost defeatist attitude when travelling. Last year, England's two visits to the subcontinent, although for one-day games, ended horribly. If a problem and an inability to counteract it is pointed out enough times, then eventually they will start to believe it. The difficulties England encounter when playing in the subcontinent are well publicised in the media, and at times during this game it looked as though England believed their own bad press. They need to work out a strategy, not just for playing spin, but for constructing a test innings around a subcontinent pitch. The humidity, the flatness of the pitch... England seemed unable to work out how to deal with this and as a result, the Pakistan bowlers, who were excellent at maintaining pressure when a wicket fell, and impressively managed by Misbah, capitalised on England's insecurities.

This isn't a time for knee-jerk reactions; no-one in the batting line-up deserves to lose their place. It is, however, a time for reflection. England were always going to have to fight against Pakistan, a side that is doing a brilliant job of re-building itself after the scandals of the last two years. To fold the way they did, in two batting innings, was disappointing, and only serves to refuel the taunts about England's sub-continent problems.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

New Zealand: as bad as 2.9% of Herald readers think?

The New Zealand Herald recently ran a survey asking its readers what had been the most disappointing thing about 2011. Placing fourth on the list, below some political references that sadly went straight over my head, was the Black Caps. There's always been a sense that cricket comes below rugby in New Zealand, and the Black Caps are unable to shake the 'underdog' tag that will undoubtedly follow them on every cricketing tour. But are they really as bad as 2.9% of New Zealand Herald readers think?

New Zealand suffer from South Africa syndrome, in that they don't play a huge amount of test cricket. The last twelve months has seen them play a two-game home 'series' against Pakistan, a one-off game in Zimbabwe and a two-game away 'series' in Australia, with 12 ODI games in between. With such a focus on the shorter format of the game, it's almost impossible to see how the Black Caps couldn't struggle in the four day games. Having one or two games scattered randomly across a calender - within the next month, New Zealand play another one-off match against Zimbabwe, before entering a three test match series against number two in the world, South Africa - not only makes it difficult for a team to gel, but it makes it nigh on impossible to adequately gauge where problems may lie in a team. England have been praised for their ability to work as a unit, and to address problems as soon as they arise; the scatter-gun approach to New Zealand cricket means its impossible to learn one anothers strengths and weaknesses and develop as a unit.

However, this is a side that only a month ago beat Australia on the last day when everything seemed to be lost. Maybe it was a regenerating Australia side, but it was a side that contained Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey, three men who are spoken of in talismanic terms in cricketing circles. It was a combination of superb pace bowling, awful Australian stroke-play - stand up and be counted, Brad Haddin - and New Zealand's ability to keep their head when the final partnership looked like it might sneak the match that contributed to this victory.

Chris Martin aside, New Zealand's seam attack is still very young, and this can often account for the problem that make the Black Caps so frustrating. However, these inconsistencies are not unique to New Zealand; maybe it is their status as 'underdogs' that makes them all the more prominent. Tim Southee, one of New Zealand's youngest ever debutants, can be infuriatingly inconsistent at time; how many other teams have struggled recently with misfiring pace bowlers? New Zealand's pace attack may not seem the most threatening on paper, but during the final day at Hobart, this young attack kept its head, spearheaded by the wonderful Martin, and Doug Bracewell, in only his third test match, completely scuppered the Australian attack with some wonderful fast bowling.

New Zealand's strength in bowling is undoubtedly with the two senior figures in Martin and Vettori. Vettori is world-class; his vast improvements with the bat across his career has seen him convert six of his twenty-three 50's into centuries. With the ball, he is a joy to watch. A springy run up to the wicket, unbelievable turn and an array of flights that can deceive even the most experienced batsmen. Chris Martin will never rival Vettori's prowess with the bat, but that hardly matters when his bowling is as good as it is. Throughout the Australia series, Martin was superb - three months prior to the Australia series, he became only the fourth New Zealander to take 200 test wickets.

New Zealand's main issue is their batting. Danger-man Brendon McCullum gave up the gloves to take up the opener's spot, but it's a gamble that's yet to pay off. McCullum's aggressive hitting is widely praised and admired in ODI and T20 cricket, but in test cricket there is a real danger of an early dismissal sparking a batting collapse. It's a quality McCullum shares with his captain, Ross Taylor, a real example of a 'boom-or-bust' cricket. Taylor can be very, very good; fluent, strong with the pull shots and attacking against the spinners, but too many times he has been dismissed slogging, or trying to smash the bowler for six. In the one match against Zimbabwe - a game which New Zealand were admittedly lucky to win - McCullum managed 14 and 11, with Taylor hitting 76 in both innings. They both struggled in Australia, falling victim to flashy shots outside the off stump, and it is this mentality that causes New Zealand's fragile batting line up to struggle.

New Zealand cricket, like Australian cricket, is undergoing a period of regeneration. There's a new captain, a new coach and a new crop of young pace bowlers coming to the forefront. But while Australian inroads are praised to the hilts, New Zealand's victories are still discussed in terms of shock. Why? New Zealand are not a bad cricket team. They have their flaws, yes; but what team doesn't? If they work at their problems, work at their batting line-up and getting the youngsters ready to play test cricket, there's no reason why they couldn't shake the 'underdog' tag. Let us not forget, this is a team that gave New Zealand it's first cricketing victory in Australia for eighteen years.